With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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There are nothing but gifts
on this poor, poor Earth.
— Czeslaw Milosz
CONVERTING to Catholicism was the last thing I ever thought I’d do, and yet, ten years after the fact, it seems almost inevitable. I’d hungered and thirsted all my life: for answers, for meaning, for love. And though I had never thought of myself as religious, religious — which comes from the Latin religare, “to bind back; to reconnect” — is exactly what I was. I was on a search, however misguided, to connect with something deeper than myself. I hungered for some Eden it seemed I’d lost before I ever found it.
When I washed up on the shore of the Church, I was newly sober and didn’t know how to live; I was scared of everybody and everything. As an active alcoholic, I’d slavered over my morning beers with the single-minded devotion of the faithful; slept around with abandon; succumbed to blackouts that were echoes, however crude, of the merging-with-God oblivion of the contemplative mystics. I wanted to redeem myself. I wanted to be good.
That first time I walked into Saint Basil’s up on Wilshire Boulevard, I thought cringingly, Am I even allowed in here? Will they kick me out because I’m not Catholic? Then I saw Christ on the cross above the altar, and all my doubts disappeared. Not because I thought, He died for my sins, but because all the trappings were stripped away to reveal a vulnerable human being, and I was moved with pity for him. I saw that he understood my suffering and was with me. He made me see that I wasn’t a product that needed to be improved, as the relentless culture of advertising told me, but a human being with a soul; that redemption wasn’t about being good, but about coming fully alive.
WHEN I was a child, my mother saw to it that I attended Sunday school and was baptized in the Congregational Church, but I wasn’t the least bit interested. Coming of age in the sixties, I had no conception of God and no desire for one. After reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit as a freshman in high school, I adopted as my personal creed “Hell is other people.” I should have looked in the mirror, for the twenty-year bout of alcoholism that followed — coupled with the irresponsibility, the sexual license, and the loss of moral values alcoholism engenders — was as close to hell as I ever want to get.
Somehow during this period I attended both college and law school. This might sound good on paper, but getting good marks in class and functioning in the world are two entirely different things. For instance, I did not work a single day the whole time I was in law school. By going without new clothing, regular meals, or any entertainment besides a weekly stack of library books, I was able to survive on student loans and the hundred dollars my loving, unsuspecting, poverty-stricken parents sent me every other week. While the other students were currying favor with professors, I was picking up guys at sleazy bars. While the other students were taking summer internships, I was taking the Blue Line to Revere Beach, lying hung over in the sun for a few hours, then repairing to the Hi-Lo to swill $1.25 vodka gimlets for the rest of the afternoon. I managed to graduate with honors and pass the bar exam, but instead of going to work as a lawyer, I was starting each day with seven or eight Sea Breezes in the company of the cirrhotic drunks at J.T.’s Place.
At the age of thirty-three, sick, demoralized, and thoroughly beaten down, I finally turned to family and other recovering alcoholics for help, and I stopped drinking. My “career” had never moved beyond waitressing, and though writing was the only occupation to which I felt drawn, in the sober light of day I saw it as an indulgence, a child’s pipe dream. Ever since I’d applied to law school, nothing had terrified me more than the prospect of actually working as an attorney. Nevertheless, two years sober and newly married, I moved from Boston to Los Angeles and found a job in a downtown law firm whose affairs were in a state of such stupendous disarray that I didn’t take a lunch break for the first six months. I struggled to salvage cases that had been dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out, or motions that were unwinnable because no one had ever gotten around to conducting the appropriate discovery. The floor of my office was heaped with clients’ medical records and rolled-up exhibits. The walls were marred with Scotch tape and nail holes, and the south-facing windows afforded, on rare smog-free days, a glimpse of the ocean. (During the 1992 riots they also gave me a panoramic view of the city going up in smoke.) I kept thinking, When am I going to get to do some real legal work? After a while, I realized this was what real lawyers did.
I also discovered that, for sheer mean-spiritedness, trial lawyers ran neck-and-neck with drunks. The senior partner observed with alarm my habit of promptly returning phone calls from opposing attorneys. “Screw them!” he said. “You think they’d do the same for us?” When I explained that I considered it a professional courtesy, he shook his head in disgust and said I was “too sensitive.” This infuriated me, but of course he was right. For a litigation lawyer, sensitivity is a defect. We were held by no less an authority than the oxymoronic “canons of legal ethics” to advocate zealously for our clients, and the capacity to feel emotions acutely got in the way of that.
I carried with me always the secret of my alcoholism and the fear that it had rendered me unfit for normal life. Why couldn’t I be more grateful? Why couldn’t I fit in like everyone else? This job was killing me, but I had so little sense of myself and what possibilities there were in the world that I literally did not think I was allowed to quit; I felt as if I had to have permission. I had sat on a bar stool for so long, thinking of myself as wrong and the rest of the world as right, that I was floored by the depth of the duplicity, the greed, the obscene waste of resources I saw at work. It seemed somewhat hypocritical for a woman who’d spent most of her adult life in a blackout to condemn the civil-litigation system as morally bankrupt, but in the depths of my heart I knew that, no matter what parents and friends and society told me, I could not possibly have gotten sober for this.
MEANWHILE, soon after I’d quit drinking, I’d embarked on a vaguely defined spiritual journey. I went through a long stage in which I thought everything about the world was wrong. Now, having dimly grasped the concept of humility — and, naturally, taken it to its furthest, most unbalanced extreme — I thought everything about me was wrong. I was so devoid of theological grounding I wasn’t even sure of the difference between the Old and New Testaments. In desperation I started reading random books about Christianity, by such authors as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Meister Eckhart, Romano Guardini and C.S. Lewis, Saint Theresa and Thomas Merton.
I even, bit by bit, read the Gospels. Ever since my childhood stint in Sunday school, I had thought of the Gospels as stories about ancient men in dusty tunics. What struck me now was how precisely the Gospels spoke to my own situation. For example, they began to explain why I was so deeply miserable in the legal profession: The Gospels talked about giving, while the basic premise of the law is hoarding. The Gospels talked about letting go, while the law advocated hanging on for all you were worth. The Gospels said to lay down your arms, but in law all we ever did was gird ourselves for battle.
A turning point for me was when the firm took on Mrs. Prietto as a client. Mrs. Prietto was a recently bereaved widow whose husband had died during outpatient podiatric surgery. She had brought a wrongful-death suit against the hospital and several of its doctors. I was dispatched to “defend” her deposition against seven insurance defense lawyers. We gathered in the twelfth-floor conference room of the lead defense lawyer, a middle-aged man with a greasy red face. Without even bothering to introduce himself, he sat down, loudly snapped what sounded like a pack of gum in his mouth, and started firing questions at Mrs. Prietto: Did your husband have any hobbies? He played the guitar? What songs did he play? Where did he buy his strings? What was the name of the street the store was on? Were the strings plastic or steel? You don’t know? How often did he practice? Less than three times a week? More than five? Which days? You don’t know! How can we give you money for the death of a man you hardly knew?
Just being present during this questioning made me glow hot with shame. I was so intimidated by the overbearing interrogating attorney — and the six silently smirking others — that I could barely squeak out a tentative objection. Tell him to take the gum out of his mouth! I instructed myself in a panic. Tell him to stop badgering the witness! But I could hardly breathe, much less speak.
As it turned out, Mrs. Prietto was almost a caricature of the ideal plantiff. Her husband had been choir director at the Church of the Precious Blood, she said. The interrogating lawyer rolled his eyes. She attended mass every day. The lawyer heaved an exasperated sigh. She and her daughters went to the cemetery with flowers every weekend. The lawyer sneered and asked, “What do you do on your time off?”
“I’m not a wealthy person, able to take expensive vacations,” Mrs. Prietto replied. “I usually go on retreats with different members of my congregation —”
“Have you had any physical complaints since your husband died?” the defense lawyer interrupted.
“Physical complaints?” she replied, bewildered. “No, it is the little things I miss: raking leaves together, painting the house, doing errands. He used to put gas in my car for me —”
“I’m asking you if you have any physical complaints,” the attorney repeated. “Insomnia, stomach pain, backaches? Have you seen a doctor? Have you started taking any prescription medicines since your husband died?”
“I don’t think you understand,” Mrs. Prietto said softly, leaning in toward his tense, sweaty face. “When my husband died, it was like I had been sitting in a bright room, and then someone, without any warning, had snapped the lights off. And they were never going to come on again.”
In the world of litigation, almost everything is calculated, but here was a grief so real you could smell it. The interrogating lawyer stopped snapping his gum. Simple, sincere, soft-spoken Mrs. Prietto had managed to render this hardened attorney mute. In the silence, a phrase floated to the forefront of my mind: “And the last shall be first.” I saw then that Mrs. Prietto didn’t need me. In a way, she had already won.
© Mark Townsend
I BEGAN going to mass regularly and attending adult confirmation classes. I continued reading the Gospels, and their many layers of meaning went on applying directly to my life. Consumed by financial worries, I read about the moneylenders in the Temple. The crowds crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” taught me the violence of trying to make things the way you want them to be instead of accepting them as they are. “And the meek shall inherit the earth” meant there is no more powerful act in the world than one human being saying to another, “I was wrong,” or, “I care about you.” Christ knew all about caring. He knew that one of the saddest things we have to live with on this earth is our loneliness, our sense of expulsion and exile. He knew that when you really love someone, you want to devour them, to become one with them, and you can’t do that with another human being. So he allowed us to experience it in Holy Communion.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” we Catholics say just before taking the Eucharist wafer, “but only say the word and I shall be healed.” That’s the beauty of it: we’re not worthy, but we get invited to the feast anyway. If we had to be worthy, we’d spend all our time trying to convince ourselves and others of our worthiness. This way it’s settled: you’re welcome the way you are — half-assed, easily distracted, generally second-rate. But at least you’ve shown up, and we’re not much better, so come on in and get yourself a plate.
Soon after being confirmed, I worked up the courage to quit my job at the law firm and start writing. I’d been terrified of giving up my salary, but following my passion for the first time in my life was its own kind of abundance. Discipline was a gift, perseverance a blessing. Day by day I learned about my shortcomings, and about my strengths. I learned that writing is a craft, and there is no way to get better at it except by practice. It was also as close to a calling as I was ever going to get, and after a while I was unable to tell whether I was creating the writing or the writing was creating me.
Dorothy Day, that great Catholic anarchist who championed the poor all her life, said, “The most important thing we do is the Mass.” I’m lucky enough to live within blocks of a church that offers daily services at 6:25, 8:00, and 12:05, and I go as often as I can. I want richness of experience, like-minded people, a certain sensibility, but it’s seldom like that. Sometimes I end up going to a strange church, because I’m always rushing around in a frenzy, afraid I won’t be able to keep up, that I’ll be left behind. One recent Sunday, I was hurrying to make it to afternoon mass at a church I’d found in the Yellow Pages. Instead of resting, as Christ suggested, I’d spent the day driving the Pasadena freeway in the broiling sun, then looking for a parking space, then shopping at Target, and then standing in line with my purchases. Now I was back in the car with an iced coffee, which I somehow managed to spill all over my pants, and I was going to be late for a five o’clock mass. Why was everything always so hard?
I walked into this hot, unfamiliar, crowded white-bread church. The mass was horrible: the lame guitars, the syrupy singing, the people who came late and squeezed in next to me, the kid crying in the next pew, the smarmy Irish priest. Is there anything more depressing than a guitar mass and a female cantor who sounds like Karen Carpenter? Plus they had this cornball practice of not only holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer, which was bad enough, but scooching over and holding hands across the pews. I was convinced: nobody there felt as lost and awful as I. No, they were all enjoying it. They liked the crappy music. They’d all gotten their lives together and found people to marry and were raising well-adjusted children. I was tired and cranky and afraid, and I’d been alone all day. I’d been alone (in self-imposed solitude) most of my life.
Finally we got to the Eucharist, and while I was standing in line with my bitten-down fingernails and coffee-stained pants, it suddenly struck me that this teenager holding a chintzy gold bowl of Communion wafers was doing the two things I’d been subconsciously longing for someone to do all day: he was acknowledging me as a human being, and he was giving me a gift — and not just any gift, but the Body of Christ. “The Body of Christ,” said the acne-scarred boy, his patient eyes on mine, and all the crankiness and fear drained out of me. He didn’t do this because I was special; he’d done it for everyone else too. He did it because I came. “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me,” Christ said. I hadn’t been forgotten after all. We’d found each other, there in the pasture.
Christ knew all about hunger, so much so that he gave us his very body to eat. He consented to become what is basically the hardest thing in the world to be: a mortal human being. He ate among us, sat around, told jokes with us. Like most of us, he was not loved enough, noticed enough, appreciated enough. He didn’t get the girl. He was lonely, misunderstood, slandered, and betrayed, and he saw his life’s work seemingly go for naught. Christ embodied and lived the sum total of what I’ve learned in life, which is that the truth about things is hidden, it is small, and it is scorned and mocked by the world. Out of this poverty and want, this failure and humiliation, he created a temple “not made by human hands” to fulfill the deepest desire of every human heart, which is not to be so eternally, everlastingly alone.
I believe the Eucharist is the true Body and the true Blood because my heart has been turned, more than once, from stone to flesh; because I’ve been forgiven and I’ve forgiven others; because for a drunk to get sober is more miraculous than the moving of any mountain. I believe it because the bread of our daily lives — the least remarkable of our experiences; the least among us; the least lovable, least understandable parts of ourselves — seems to be exactly where we are most likely to meet God.
CATHOLICS are required to be obedient, a fact that doesn’t sit well with many independent thinkers. I’ve never had much trouble with the outward obediences. I go to mass every Sunday and most days during the week. I go to confession, though not as often as I could or probably should. When I was married, I didn’t use artificial birth control, and when I was divorced, I got an annulment. But I’m not blindly, stupidly obedient. Nor am I too lazy or afraid to think for myself. I’m obedient because I was obedient to myself for most of my life, and it was a disaster. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said, but he also said, “My yoke is easy, my burden light.” If taking up my own little cross — basically, looking at myself and trying to change for the better — has sometimes been painful and lonely, it hasn’t been nearly as painful and lonely as when I was out there exercising my “freedom.”
Romano Guardini said, “The Church is the cross upon which Christ is crucified . . . and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.” But I, for one, am glad the Church doesn’t try to please everybody. Whatever its failings, it’s the only organization I know that’s for life across the board: against both capital punishment and abortion, euthanasia and nuclear weapons. These positions grant life, and the sex that gives rise to it, the sacramental position it deserves. The time may be coming for the Church to die and rise again in some form we can’t yet imagine. In the meantime, I can hardly expect an institution comprised of fallen humans to be anything but fallen itself. As Philip Larkin said: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” and I see no way to be washed clean of that bone-deep shame, guilt, and sorrow except to be baptized with fire and water, to be born again, to “put on the new man” through Christ.
The Church is often seen as a bastion of conservatism, a power-based hierarchy, but Christ subverted all power systems: political, cultural, personal. There is no braver, more difficult, or more radical act of countercultural resistance than giving with no expectation of return; than learning, as Saint Francis of Assisi did, that it is better to comfort than to be comforted. We’re the ones who devised a world based on rewards and punishments. Christ preached a very different kind of world, one based not on what we deserve — for none of us deserves anything — but on love. Jesus knew that true love, and therefore true transformation, takes place in the face-to-face encounter. Feeling love for the tsunami victims halfway around the world is easier than loving the neighbor whose music disturbs your sleep, or the traffic cop who’s just given you a ticket, or the spouse who just ruined your best pair of jeans when you told him not to use bleach. These are tasks requiring superhuman help.
CATHOLICISM has a wealth of ritual: the liturgy, the feasts, the veneration of saints; the annual cycle of Advent, Lent, and Ordinary Time. I’ve observed these long enough that they’ve begun to order my days, my years, my psyche. Almost every morning I pray the Divine Office, with its psalms, canticles, responses, and readings, and at night I attempt at least a brief examination of conscience. Rich as all this is, I can’t say I’ve been transformed by it — at least, not in the way I’d hoped to be. My prayers are often frustrated: “I’m no good, I hate everybody, and all I think about is sex.” I spend entire masses hunched over and sobbing. I once knelt in the confessional and admitted that I was prideful, slothful, selfish, judgmental, rageful, and rude. There was a long pause, after which the priest asked, “Are you a very unhappy person?”
“Oh, no!” I replied hastily, committing yet another sin: lying.
More and more I see the wisdom of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way”: To pray not only for the people I love, but for those who have wronged me, threatened me, disturbed me. To give a portion of what extra money I have to someone who needs it more. To give thanks at the end of the day, for a thousand more things have gone right than have gone wrong. These things don’t seem like much, but I have to believe they change the world in a way we’re not given to see. I don’t have any remarkable skills. I am not patient or generous. But I can answer phone calls, show up on time, drive, and tell a joke or two — all you need, really, to perform acts of mercy.
“You just want some comfort,” agnostics sometimes jeer at believers. “You just want some consolation.” I can hardly believe the mean-spiritedness that would deny a drop of consolation to a brother or sister in anguish. In this world where there’s no lasting peace, no answers, no fixes, quick or otherwise, I, for one, wish we could all have more consolation — and I think Jesus, who in his anguish sweated tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, wishes that for us too. In my own anxiety and loneliness, I imagine sitting with him in the garden, or standing along the Via Dolorosa as he passes by carrying the cross. In happier moods, I tell him, “Isn’t it nice to have clean sheets, Jesus?” or share one of my better wisecracks. And however poor my progress or halting my discipleship, prayer and the sacraments have given me Jesus as a friend.
The other day I was taking a walk through my economically depressed neighborhood — the dog crap and the noisy kids and the ice-cream trucks and the sun shining down and the scraggly pink oleanders blooming in the overgrown lot — when I suddenly experienced a feeling of incredible certainty that it is all right, that it is all here, and that it is all so incredibly beautiful that I could have fallen on the oil-stained sidewalk and wept.
Jesus tells the parable of a merchant who searches far and wide for the world’s most precious pearl. When he finds the jewel, the merchant sees that it will cost him everything he owns, but he buys it anyway.
Half the time I feel like killing myself, but a moment like the one I had on my walk: I’d sell everything for it. It was the pearl of great price that’s worth a whole life.
Parts of this essay previously appeared in Commonweal, in Notre Dame Magazine, and on National Public Radio.
I enjoyed reading about Heather King’s conversion to Catholicism. Personally, I am for any religion, belief, or creed that opens our hearts and brings us closer to the one God who permeates all spiritual traditions. This God is like sugar, which has different names in different languages, but whose sweetness is common to all.
The downside of religious institutions is all the dogma, ritual, and posturing, which can prevent spiritual growth. The perfected state requires absolute surrender to God, and on that high path with no railings, any and all concepts or beliefs you might have about your God, no matter how dear, completely disappear. And then what do you have? Only the nondual “you,” selflessly and effortlessly doing God’s work.
Religious institutions can and do bring liberation from bondage for those who are willing to settle for nothing less than having the Mystery revealed. But I cannot overstate the danger of believing your way is the only way. This belief has, at its worst, resulted in untold millions of murders committed “in the name of God.”
I recently asked my Hindu guru what he thought would be the best way to solve the world’s problems. His reply: “Do away with all religions.”
Writing on religion that doesn’t make me cringe is a rare find. Heather King’s “Paradise Found” almost makes me proud to be a Catholic.
I have privately wondered what motivates adult converts to Catholicism. If you weren’t born into this dysfunctional religion, why deliberately choose it? After reading King’s essay, I know. She has reminded me why I am still a Catholic — albeit a struggling one.
Now, if only someone could write an essay that reminds me why I am still an American.
Heather King [“Paradise Found,” July 2005] commented that religion is derived from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.” That derivation has its origin with the church fathers, whose livelihood, then and now, was dependent on keeping a sizable and generous flock “bound” to their dogma. I prefer the classical etymology that derives religion from relegere, which means “to attend to” or “to take account of.”
As the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, only by paying careful attention to those spirits that possess and direct our faculties and energies are we able to water the seeds of joy rather than those of suffering.
Amy Lemon’s letter [Correspondence, October 2005] ends, “Now, if only someone could write an essay that reminds me why I am still an American.”
Who needs an essay? I can do it in a sentence: You’re still an American because you can write that letter without even considering the possibility that you could wind up in prison for it.